2010-03-12 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Diane Ravitch – My Education Hero
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Diane Ravitch is one of my main heroes, and she has been ever since she wrote “The Great School Wars, New York City, 1805-1973,” which was mostly about the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community control battle that I lived through and participated in. I still have that book on my shelf at home and pull it out to reread it every once in a while to remember what it was like being stabbed with a spear and shot at from a Brooklyn roof with a BB gun. But that’s another story for another time.

Ravitch was still my hero, albeit a tainted one, when she went to work for President George W. Bush in 1991 and turned to the dark side.

She became a proponent of the free market model, of charter schools and accountability as measured solely by standardized tests, things that are anathema to me.

I didn’t understand how a woman so schooled in education, who had become arguably the most-honored educational historian of our age, could turn to the dark side.

Now, however, nearly 20 years later, she has seen the light and the force is with her once again.

“School reform today is like a freight train, and I’m out on the tracks saying, you’re going the wrong way,” she recently told an interviewer.

In fact, she has now become an opponent of all those things she pushed when she worked for Bush.

Calling charter schools, accountability tied to tests and the free market model “faddish trends,” she now says that they undermined public education and she has resigned from the boards of two conservative educational research groups.

Echoing what I have said time and time again over the past two years, Ravitch says that the No Child Left Behind Law has squeezed subjects such as social studies and science from the curriculum in the nation’s schools in favor of the subjects tested most often – reading and mathematics.

Now, many “progressive” educators are angry at her for her paradigm shift, even if they have to admit that she knows her subject.

The president of the education school at Columbia University, the people who brought us the “New Math,” and “Holistic Writing,” doesn’t like her much anymore, even though she got her doctorate and had her first teaching job at the university.

“She has done more than anyone I can think of in America to drive home the message of accountability and charters and testing,” Arthur Levine, the university’s former president told New York Times writer Sam Dillon. “Now, for her to suddenly conclude that she’s been wrong is extraordinary – and not very helpful.”

Unfortunately, even though Ravitch lives in Brooklyn and often writes oped pieces for papers such as the New York Times and Daily News, few people involved with the New York City public school system listen to her call for going back to a real educational program. That program calls for the study of all four major subjects – language arts, mathematics, social students and science as well as the traditional minor subjects such as art, music, foreign language, physical education and the like, subjects that have been lost in the shuffle to do nothing but earn higher scores on standardized tests, even if that means teaching only English and math, along with test-taking skills.

In her new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” she writes, “The new thinking saw the public school system as obsolete, because it is controlled by the government. I argued that certain managerial and structural changes – that is, choice, charters, merit pay and accountability – would help to reform our schools.”

“It sounded terrific,” she adds.

By 2006, however, the data coming out of the schools and her own studies of the schools under the new law led her to understand that the law was not having its intended impact on the public schools, and, that it might be harming the educational process.

Those studies proved to her satisfaction that charter schools were proving to be no better than regular schools, but that, in many cities including New York, those schools were bleeding resources from the public system. In addition, she came to believe that testing had become not just a way to measure student learning, but an end in itself.

An early proponent of mayoral control, by 2004 she had emerged as a fierce critic of the Bloomberg administration and his chancellor.

In addition, a study of Pakistan’s schools dominated by private and religious schools, led her to the conclusion that protecting the public schools was important to democracy.

Does that sound familiar?

It’s a theme that has been in my columns from the time I wrote “Rockaway Short Takes” 20 years ago.

At one point, I said that public schools were better than parochial schools because democracy depended on kids getting together and understanding each other. The Wave got literally dozens of letters, and a priest as some local church put me in his sermon, demanding that I be fired.

Whatever is old is new again.

Ravitch knows the deal.

“Accountability, as written into federal law, was not raising standards, but dumbing down the schools,” she wrote. “The effort to upend American public education and replace it with something that is market-based is just too radical for me.”

For me also, and that is what Bloomberg and Klein are trying to do.

If you do not believe me, look at Beach Channel High School. First, the DOE took away all of its resources and then called it a failing school. Then, they closed it down, pouring its promised resourses instead into a charter school owned by State Senator Malcolm Smith. In two years, those small schools in the building will most likely be joined by another Smith school.

That is what the mayor wants. Destroy the UFT and make the schools market-based. Unfortunately, he will probably pull it off. Not, however, if people are listening to Diane Ravitch.

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